Inez Beverly Prosser: Making Psychological Strides

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Typically, our study of psychology and its development is limited to several key psychologists. We cannot help but to look to figures like Freud, Jeung, and James for insight and instruction. However, we must also consider the value of regarding psychologists from more marginal bodies. Psychologists like Inez Beverly Prosser exemplify how one can still succeed despite the obstacles placed before them. Prosser’s personal life, education, and career all demonstrate how her perseverance has led to major contributions in the psychological world. Moreover, despite her untimely death, we can still attribute her as being one of the key players in the psychological study.

Historians often debate about Prosser’s early life. Most agree that she was born on December 30, but there is speculation as to what year she was born. While some argue that she was born in 1897 (Benjamin, 2005, p. 42), her death certificate cites her date of birth as December 30, 1895. With that said, she spent much of her childhood growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas. She was also the second of eleven children, with her mother a homemaker and her father a waiter at a local restaurant. Therefore, Prosser nascent and humble beginnings not only demonstrate the economic and social hardships she underwent as a child but to make her claim to success even more successful and inspiring.

Despite her childhood, in 1912, Prosser accepted a position teaching at an elementary school in Austin, Texas (Benjamin, 2005, p. 43). She would go on to have several other teaching positions, including a vocational school and a high school. Overall, she appreciated her position as a teacher. This occupation was clearly a move up the social and economic ladders of the time. Thus, although Prosser by no means was a teacher in her professional life, her educational position portended the future of her own education, and in a way predicted her own educational achievements.

Getting her foot in the door was not the only achievement Prosser came across in Austin, Texas. Prosser met her future husband, Allen Rufus Prosser while working as a teacher. Allen ultimately encouraged Prosser’s education. He fully supported its advancement and commended her for obtaining her collegiate degree (Benjamin, 2008, p. 20). Because of his support, Prosser left the Austin school system in 1927. Up until that time, she had been progressively working towards earning her degree. In other words, Prosser was able to work full-time was also pursuing her education. At that time, she was one of only thirteen other African Americans in the region who also possessed collegiate degrees (Benjamin, 2005, p. 45). In fact, her success also inspired her husband Allen to obtain his high school diploma. In short, Prosser’s education not only benefitted herself, but speaks symbolically for African Americans as a whole. Allen’s pursuit of a degree reinforces this concept, for through her example Allen also improved his own education.

Because the South imposed such strict graduation requirements for African Americans during this time, Prosser was forced to leave Texas and go elsewhere in pursuit of her degree. The University of Colorado was one of the closest states that accepted Prosser. Because of its western region, Colorado was overall a much more progressive state, already accepting women and other minorities into its University (Benjamin, 2005, p. 47). However, this is not to say that Colorado was by any means welcoming to Prosser. Prosser experienced significant discrimination and prejudice in Colorado, and the University was anything but accommodating.

Nevertheless, she still found a way to be successful at the University of Colorado.  Her thesis was entitled “‘The Comparative Reliability of Objective Tests in English Grammar.’ It was designed to investigate the reliability of four types of English grammar tests that had been created by Prosser” (Benjamin, 2005, p. 47).  Her experiment tested how certain question types tested students’ knowledge of grammar. Ultimately, she concluded that specific questions test students in specific ways, and that the presentation or question-type can affect a students’ response. A student may answer questions correctly when presented in one way, for instance, but may answer different questions incorrectly even if these questions test the same material. In the end, while Prosser’s experiment did not dramatically change teaching efforts, the project facilitated her personal investment in psychology, and foreshadowed her continuing success in this field.

After receiving her Master’s Degree, Prosser taught at a variety of schools including Tillotson College and Tougaloo College. Because of the smaller nature of these schools, Prosser was a rather active faculty member at these schools. For example, in addition to teaching courses about educational psychology, she played a role in the admissions process as well (Benjamin, 2005, p. 50). Eventually, her work at Tougaloo College led to her applying for the General Education Board fellowship. Designed by Rockefeller in 1903, the fellowship specifically shows nepotism towards minorities (Benjamin, 2005, p. 50). Prosser’s compelling application ultimately granted her the fellowship, allowing her to pursue her doctorate degree at the University of Cincinnati.

It was at the University of Cincinnati that Prosser’s research strengthened, and the experiments she conducted posed real social and psychological value. Prosser’s primary investment was “‘the degree of truth in the often repeated statement that the Negro child develops superior character traits, more racial self-respect, and a greater share of the other concomitants of a well-rounded education when he is placed under the direction of Negro teachers during his formative years’” (Benjamin, 2005, p. 51). Clearly, this inquiry combines her personal racial hardships with her educational experiences. Her thesis was also concerned with the degree to which segregation affected students’ learning abilities.

While much of Prosser’s data supported her hypothesis, ultimately she did not conclude that her efforts proved her initial readings. She concluded that certain students excel in a more diverse environment, while others would actually do better in segregated schools. Perhaps the most shocking assertion, Prosser implied that black students would actually perform better in black schools with black teachers (Benjamin, 2005, p. 53), and that to African American children segregation provided an almost equalizing component to these students. In other words, segregated schools might help counteract the competition that would otherwise arise between white and black students during this time period.

Although this conclusion may seem prejudiced or unrealistic in modern times, during Prosser’s day the black community empathized and agreed with her conclusions. Even the academic community agreed that overall, black children would psychologically thrive in segregated schools (Benjamin, 2005, p. 57). In terms of the study’s future relevance, opponents of educational integration often cited Prosser’s study as evidence that segregation is an acceptable practice. However, opponents of segregation argued that by allowing educational segregation, this practice may unjustly overflow into other parts of society. Ultimately, when court cases like Brown vs. Board of Education reached the Supreme Court, Prosser’s study was neglected, for her controversial study would confound many of the arguments made during the legal case (Benjamin, 2005, p. 60).

Overall, Prosser has made enormous psychological contributions. Despite her humble beginnings, she is cited as the first female and African American psychologist. Additionally, her work has made a lasting social impact, even affecting the Civil Rights legislation of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Thus, while few may study Prosser’s work, her work is by no means unremarkable. If anything, it has had a tremendous social impact on the United States.

References

Benjamin Jr. L. T. Henry, K.D., and McMahon, L.R. (2005). “Inez Beverly Prosser and the education of African Americans.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. 41 (1), 43-62. doi:10.1002/jhbs.20058

Benjamin Jr. Ludy T. (2008). “America's first black female psychologist.” American Psychological Association. 39 (10), 20. http://www.apa.org/monitor/2008/11/prosser.aspx